Just a slight warning for language in this chapter as well. Storyspindler gets credit for the beta!
And without another month of waiting, here's the ending!
The presence of a large amount of blood carries with it a sense of urgency.
Though the small trickle from Charlie's lip was barely enough to constitute a second glance, to Don it expressed as much concern as the day his brother bled profusely from a gunshot wound. Charlie's blood was Charlie's blood, whether in a drop or en masse, and its presence alone sent Don's older brother instincts shooting through the roof.
He raced to Charlie's side amid the swirling chaos of McHugh's arrest, taking a moment to study the younger man from head to toe before clapping him over the shoulders in a relieved half-embrace. Charlie could not check a wave of sharp pain the rocketed from his left side as his brother's weight pressed against him.
The grimace on his Charlie's face did not escape Don's notice. He took a step back, his hand gripping at Charlie's good shoulder, and examined him from head to toe again.
"I-I'm okay." Charlie massaged his tender shoulder lightly, hiding his discomfort under his best steeled expression. "Just … took a bad fall."
Don's eyes locked on the faint indication of bruises darkening on the length of his brother's forearm. A scowl formed on his lips.
"A bad fall? Look at that, Charlie! He all but threw you!"
"Charlie, he could have killed you!"
"I know that, Don." He paused. "But he was hiding behind this façade … this whole situation was a last desperate attempt to convince himself that he really was untouchable. He was hurting inside, Don. Stuck between what was best for him and what was his duty to complete. Something like what he went through would push any man's sanity to the breaking point."
Don shook his head, almost in disbelief. His hand assured him that his brother was alive and well, but Don struggled to believe that any man who could perform such violent acts against another human being could solely blame his actions on some sort of internal mental conflict.
Don watched as McHugh shrank into the distance amid a sea of uniformed officers. Without speaking he began to usher is brother up the hill and through the trees. The brothers walked in a solemn silence for a time, the cabin slowly shrinking at their backs.
"Can't you forgive a man for his mistakes, Don?"
Don's eyes widened at the unusual segue. "Charlie?"
Charlie chewed on his words for several tense moments before breathing a response. "Well, I did."
The response hit Don like a jolt of electricity.
"Well I—uh, I guess that's not the right way to put it," Charlie stammered. "I—I've never blamed you, Don. Not for anything. Not once."
He cleared his throat, concentrating heavily on massaging his tender shoulder. For a moment, his gaze assumed the dirt, before rising with a pleading expression.
"I've … heard stories. From people. Of how after it happened, you could only sit there and stare."
Don visibly recoiled, jerking his hand off his brother as if it suddenly burned him. His heart found a new place between his teeth. His head filled with a sudden, unbearable pressure as old memories rushed forward to mutilate his thoughts. Charlie, shot and bleeding, slowly wasting away before his eyes, and he, clutching at his brother's cold body, his own arms frozen and his brain incapable of complex thought, watching as his brother's life slowly wept out onto the pavement…
He attempted to speak, but the retort died a wispy groan in his throat before it even left his lips.
As the words echoed at the forefront of his brain, all his coherent thoughts scattered. Coldness rushed inwards from the tips of his fingers and coalesced as a heavy mass over his heart. No. It had not been that way. Could not have been that way. Fear had paralyzed him, a genuine terror. He had not been staring; he had been gaping, screaming inside, his body unable to find a way to react to the horror before his eyes…
All his senses suddenly left him, and Don floated in a sort of emotional limbo. Unfeeling, unseeing, the world became suddenly drenched in a shade of solid gray. Muted shapes, shadows danced across the tattered remains of his vision, distant memories that haunted every fragment of his existence.
Charlie watched his brother's face pale to a milky white, and he started. His hand abandoned its ministrations and sought Don's shoulder. The touch catapulted Don from his senseless state, and he shied away from Charlie's grip, cursing in a mix of indignation and fear.
"No, Don." Charlie's voice was soft, almost comforting. "I know. You were afraid. I'm sure I would have done the same thing. But then you came to, and you helped me. You saved my life. There's nothing for me to forgive, Don. You did nothing wrong."
Don shivered again as the coldness melted away, allowing his tortured heart to beat again. There was a pause, one where he did not seem to breathe.
"But don't you see, Don?" Charlie continued. "McHugh has done the same thing. He made a mistake—holding me hostage—that he made in a moment of fear and anger, when he could do nothing else no matter how badly he wanted to. Just like you must have felt. But then something clicked inside him, and now he understands. Now he is staunching the wound instead of staring, crippled by fear. He's been changed."
Charlie stopped walking. After several steps his brother joined him.
"I'm not going to press charges, Don."
There was a resolution in that phrase, one Don could not ignore.
"What? Charlie, why?"
"It was part of our agreement. I was able to reason with him. In exchange for ending this situation without bloodshed, I told him I would not prosecute him."
Don regarded his brother with an inquisitive eyebrow.
"I still have to take him in for evading arrest, Charlie. I can't just let him go, regardless of…what happened to you. He was wanted long before that."
Charlie nodded, slowly. "I know that. And he knows that." He paused. "I…I told him I'd try and arrange a more lenient sentence, if it comes to that."
Don sucked in a hiss through his teeth. "I don't know about that, Charlie. But even if you don't press charges, there are over a dozen witnesses to this whole event. It's not going to look good for him in the long run."
"Maybe, maybe not," Charlie replied. "But truly, I don't believe that he is a dangerous man, Don. He was just caught in a bad situation."
He emphasized his sentence with a pertinent stare, seemingly calm and collected.
The brothers continued their walk in silence, Don contemplating every iota of the recent conversation with a furrowed expression on his face. Charlie had succeeded where Don himself had failed, managing a successful negotiation with a man that had no qualms against taking his life…
Don broke the silence with a laugh, clapping his younger brother on his good shoulder.
"You know," he spoke, relief bringing the old Don back from the brink, "you might have a career as a negotiator?"
Charlie sputtered, regarding his brother with an amused expression.
"Thanks, but no thanks, Don," he offered. "I think I'll stay with my numbers." He rubbed at his temples, willing away the pain beginning to take root. "I think it'll be…safer that way."
"Safer," Don replied, mulling over the word's connotations. "Yeah. I like that."
Gazing around what had been the FBI's station for the past six hours, Charlie watched as Edgerton slithered out from behind the cover of the trees, sniper rifle held at a carry. He stopped to watch Don and Charlie pass, nodding his head to the pair, but said nothing. Don returned his gesture.
Charlie, endorphins now spent, struggled to organize his thoughts as messages of pain from various places assaulted his brain. Little by little he became aware of just what sort of ordeal he had been through. He could feel a dull throb spreading throughout his skull, an omen of the blazing headache that would soon follow. His shoulder did not ache unless he moved his left arm, so he kept the limb glued to his side. Crusted blood left a metallic taste in his mouth and his lip felt five times its normal size. In general, he felt like a man who had just come off the wrong side of a bar fight, which was partly the truth in many ways.
Thankfully, Don noted, he had escaped anything major. Like those gunshots…
Don pondered this thought for a moment, and suddenly choked down a wave of laughter.
"Riddle me this, Chuck," he offered.
Charlie stopped walking again, turning to his brother bemusedly.
"I remember you told me once," Don began, "that statistically, I was dead. That a man had taken a shot at me, and the fact that I survived was an anomaly. That the possibility of something like that happening again was next to impossible."
Charlie winced, unsure of his brother's motivations for rehashing such a sensitive memory.
"Yes … ?"
"Well, I have a sinking suspicion that you might be wrong."
"… Wrong?" Charlie repeated the word as if it were in another language, foreign to his own vocabulary.
"Wrong. Because, you see," Don pointed suggestively at Charlie. "You've done it twice."
The comment seemed to float aimlessly in Charlie's brain for several seconds before finding the correct synapse. An expression suddenly flashed over his face best described as aghast.
"First the sniper, and now you've dodged McHugh's bullets—literally. I may not be as good at math as you, buddy, but I do know that's two times you've defied that little rule." He held up two fingers. "Twice."
Charlie opened his mouth to speak, but somewhere between brain and tongue the response was lost.
"Anomaly, eh?" Don sent a friendly jab in his brother's direction.
"I … well, you—" Charlie managed, waving a hand feverishly in his brother's direction, the lines on his face speaking vaguely of frustration. "… Never mind."
"… I suppose that makes you an anomaly of an anomaly, then?"
Charlie's head began a ceaseless, awful pounding, though whether it was from McHugh's beating or Don's challenge he was suddenly unsure.
"… For lack of a better term, yes."
Don guffawed. "I'm not going to make you try and explain yourself, Charlie. It's been a long day."
Charlie nodded, grateful. The two brothers started their trek again and continued for several more steps in silence. When Don stopped short, it took Charlie several moments to notice how far they had walked. McHugh's house had vanished behind the crest of the hill at their backs, and they had reached what Charlie imagined was the FBI equivalent of a base camp.
Amid the throng of FBI and police vehicles scattered among the trees, an ambulance sat waiting.
Charlie, still forcing his brain to process the scene through the pounding in his head, felt Don grip his good arm just above the elbow.
"Just get in the ambulance, okay Charlie?"
"Don, I said I'm fine!"
"C'mon. They came all the way out here. I don't want them to think we called them for nothing."
Charlie frowned, but Don prodded him toward the open doors of the waiting ambulance with the type of resolution that only a concerned older brother could possess.
"You don't have just stay with them. I want to have you checked out. Dad would never forgive me if I didn't."
After several steps, Charlie ceased his struggling, dislodged from his brother's grasp, and shuffled, albeit hesitantly, towards his destination.
Don watched him, pondering. Just as his brother reached the vehicle he started towards him.
His brother turned to him.
"You know that phrase, 'third time's a charm'?"
Charlie's eyes glittered. "There's no mathematical proof for that, Don."
Don dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand.
"Yeah, yeah. But there wasn't any proof for an anomaly of an anomaly, either, but here I am, staring at one."
Charlie contemplated for a moment whether or not he should be offended, and tendrils of incredulity curled in the depths of his gut.
"Look, I'm not trying to discount your mathematical prowess, buddy," Don continued. "I have much more faith in you than that. But in my job, you learn not to take chances. I'm going to make sure that third time never happens, okay?"
Don paused for several breaths, contemplating heavily his next response. "But I won't be able to do it alone, y'know? It's hard to keep your little brother from being used as target practice when he has a giant bull's-eye painted on his forehead."
It took several moments before Charlie processed the metaphor with a soft chuckle.
"With a brother like you," he replied, "well, I don't think I have anything to worry about."
Don could not deny his brother's pure sincerity. He felt suddenly more complete, another of the broken pieces of the past slowly on the mend. The steps to his emotional recovery after the sniper attack were coming both swift and fierce. For a moment, Don wondered if the road to absolution was lined with fire and brimstone, a gauntlet through which he must pass.
The proverbial conflagration before the Phoenix rises anew.
Watching his brother, Don realized he was not alone.
Don then regarded Charlie with a stern expression as a paramedic leaned in closer to examine the lump forming on the side of his brother's head. Assuring himself after a few moments that nothing warranted his immediate concern, he turned away to where Edgerton and the others waited for him.
"… Hey, Don?"
Don glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah, buddy?"
"The next time I see someone with a gun, I'll…run like hell in the opposite direction, okay?"
Don snorted a laugh, and suddenly became aware of a great tension releasing his body from its hold, a tension he had not noticed until that moment. It was almost painful, like limbs released from sleep with the pinching of a hundred tiny knives. But as this inner agony melted out onto the forest floor, Don Eppes could not have felt better.
He thrust a finger pointedly in Charlie's direction.
"Damn right, you will."